Please Stay in Your Lane; or, when empathy goes wrong

CW: ableism, racism, (mention of female genital mutilation, because of a link to a tweet – specific CW at the link too), misunderstanding/erasing of others’ gender identities

I have noticed something happening in a few different spaces recently. Or rather, I’ve come across something a couple of times recently in other discussions (regarding gender and race) which I’d previously only seen in discussions about autism.

I’m sure pretty much all autistic people will be very familiar with this conversation:

Autistic person: “I’m autistic!”

Allistic person: “Oh, we’re all a little bit autistic!”

Autistic person: [internally facepalming, trying not to scream…]

Because, of course, as we all know (and if you didn’t, now you do!) we are, in fact, NOT all “a little bit autistic”. Yes, being autistic is talked about as a spectrum1, but no, that does not mean that it is a spectrum that we are all (including allistics) on! Allistic literally means “not autistic”! Not even a little bit. Nope. Not even a crumb. Nothing. Just nope.

The best explanation I’ve seen in response to this trope is that while we know that there are different things we think of as being “signs” of being autistic (I don’t like to say “symptoms” because that’s medicalised language). Like, we love routine, dislike change, we have our intense autistic interests (and will infodump about those, given the opportunity), are often not great with social cues, we stim, we tend to be introverts, etc., etc. A lot of people who aren’t autistic might also love routine, and yes, everyone stims (even allistics2), and everyone fucks up in social situations sometimes…

And you know how there are various symptoms that go along with pregnancy? Nausea, swollen ankles, needing to pee often, all sorts… Thing is, a lot of people who aren’t pregnant get nauseous, have swollen ankles, need to pee a lot (UTIs, anyone?!)… and you don’t really hear people looking at the swollen ankles, or the nausea and saying “oh, well, we’re all a little bit pregnant!”

Because, well… that wouldn’t make sense!

So, that’s the autistic case, which us autistics are very familiar with.

And now I’ve come across it in other areas too.

First, a few weeks ago, there was the (quickly deleted, though the internet never forgets – and CW for that link for mentions of female genital mutilation) egregious tweet from National Party MP Judith Collins, where she claims to be a “woman of colour”, that colour being white (yes, she’s a Pākehā woman).

I think this fits into that same mould. We are not all people of colour.

Sure, if you’re going to be pedantic about it, white is a colour, but if we’re talking about race (which we are here) then that becomes ludicrously irrelevant! The point is, of course, that white people (here in Aotearoa, Pākehā people) have white privilege, and POC don’t! As white people, barging in to try to co-opt the identities of marginalised people… I mean… have we not done enough damage?! Have we not taken enough?!

It’s just like the Pākehā blusterers at Ōwairaka calling themselves mana whenua, when they most decidedly are not. We need to stay in our lane.

And now, the most recent example: “we’re all nonbinary”.

I recently told someone I care about a lot (but am not in frequent contact with) that I’m in the process of figuring out my nonbinary identity and coming out as nonbinary, and this is what they said in response (along with other things too).

It felt jarring to me, though it’s taken me a while to figure out why (though I immediately felt the parralels to the way allistics respond to autistics!)… and it’s because no, no we’re not all a bit nonbinary.

I think the jarring thing for me is that it feels like it’s trying to empathise, but missing the mark. Like, I’m picturing someone coming in for a hug, and instead they end up hugging your neighbour three houses down. (And that neighbour is probably seriously confused about where this hug came from out of nowhere!!)

Because (let’s go with this hug thing!), giving me a hug (let’s say that’s what I’d asked for) would’ve been to say something like “congratulations, that sounds exciting” (which, incidentally, is exactly what my psychiatrist said, when I told him in passing) or whatever. But my neighbour is going “um… nope… how did I get dragged into this?? Why are you telling me that I’m nonbinary?! I’m not! I’m [insert binary gender here]! Also, who are you even?!”

I think I used to (perhaps only briefly) think similarly about bisexuals, but I quickly realised that that too isn’t true. While I know that gender is a social construct (which is a big part of how I’ve been figuring out my nonbinary gender identity), the fact is that our social construction of gender nevertheless makes gender real, just like how race isn’t real (in the sense that race scientists believe it is), but is a social construct, but that social construct is what makes it real, and it informs and, well, really just forms a great many, if not in fact all of our lived experiences.3

In much the same way, gender is real, while also being socially constructed. And while some of us are indeed nonbinary4, some people just aren’t. Some people very much do identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and are very, very comfortable in their (very binary) gender expression. And that’s ok. And some trans people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth are also very much not nonbinary, but rather identify very much with5 the opposite gender to that which they were assigned at birth. Those binary experiences and expressions of gender are no less real and valid than my (and others’) nonbinary ones, so I think it is important not to erase them, however unintentionally.

And while I think we would all benefit from examining (our own, and the social construction of) gender more closely, and questioning if we are actually comfortable with the gender we were assigned at birth as our gender identity, and also consider explicitly our gender expression (and not just shrug and swallow whatever cultural norms we’re fed by media, religion, culture, peers, family, whatever), that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of of people are, and will continue to be, very comfortable with a binary gender identity and expression.


1 Here is a useful comic to explain the spectrum idea. Please note that while it does have alt text (I had a listen through with my screenreader on my phone), the alt text only reads through the text in the speech bubbles, so it doesn’t give the full description of the comic. The important things it misses are that when it says “Archie you can handle all of this just fine”, it shows a large hand pushing Archie (the cartoon child/person wearing glasses) towards a LOT of words of varying sizes and fonts which say: new situations, “smart” tight clothing, don’t stim, too much noise, lack of routine, “loadsa conversations”, “all at once”, don’t fidget, be more organised!

Underneath, when it says “How can you be tired?” it shows Archie looking very overwhelmed, covering his ears, with lots of large words (most cut off at the ends, so can’t read most of them) around him.

The other most important part is that when it says “You see, the autistic spectrum looks something more like this. and then “circle with lots of attributes”, that “circle” is a colourful circle (like a colour wheel), and the attributes are written around the edges: language, motor skills, perception, executive function, sensory (though in the next panel, “sensory” is called “sensory filter”).

2 Except when allistics stim they tend to call it “fidgeting” or call stimmy things “grounding” instead because… well, fuck knows why!!

3 Though, as with all of these kinds of things, privilege often allows us to not see how such social constructs inform and form our lived experiences – for example, I will often be much more blind to how me being Pākehā informs and forms my experience of the world than a person of colour will be to how their experience (as a person of colour) informs and forms their experience of the world.

4 (in whatever way we apply that term to our experiences, whether it’s to mean that we fit outside of the gender binary – as I do, or across/along it, or identifying with both, or something else)

5 I realise, of course, that it’s problematic to use the language of “identifying with” a gender identity, instead of saying that the person in question is that gender. I couldn’t figure out how to phrase it in the way that I wanted to without using the language of identity. I do know, of course, that trans women are women, and trans men are men, and do not merely identify as such!!

Image from Pixar's film "Inside Out" (2015) showing the characters Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Joy (personified emotions of the main character, Riley), all looking various degrees of shocked/horrified, standing at the controls in her minds "Headquarters".

My Neighbours Upstairs (Hi, Brain!)

CW: mental illness, mentions of suicide, paranoia, use of “crazy” and similar terms (in reference to myself, in a therapy context)

So, I’ve written before about seeing a therapist, and I know that I’ve talked about having PTSD and depression, and I’ve talked about suicidal feelings in the past (not as much of a feature currently, though there are occasional spikes).

One fun feature of PTSD (and I think I’m going make that bright red as a sarcasm flag, because I find it useful for sarcasm to be clearly pointed out, since – being autistic – I don’t always pick up on that!) is that my brain sometimes engages in things like hypervigilance, paranoia, plus other things often associated with extreme anxiety (and this is quite aside from the side of PTSD that involves extreme irritability and angry outbursts, which I’m sure I’ll write about another time).

So, I think what I’m getting at is that my brain is not a fun place to be a lot of the time, but that makes sense, considering that it’s deeply traumatised (that’s the T in PTSD).

Today I was telling my therapist about one of these paranoid notions my brain had thrown at me a few days ago (I kept interrupting myself to reiterate how hard it was for me to even say the thing out loud because saying it made me feel “batshit crazy”1), and after she listened to me, she told me about an analogy she likes to use (I like analogies!).

She told me that she likes to think of our minds as well-meaning but meddling neighbours/relatives, who come knocking on our door to tell us about something that’s really none of their business (say we didn’t take our bins out, or they’ve noticed we’ve had a lot of “gentlemen callers” lately) but they wanted to come by to express their concern… and she asked me how I would respond to such a well-meaning meddling relative or neighbour. I said “well… we both know that I have very strong opinions about good intentions… [we both laughed at this point] so I think I’d try to find the politest way possible to tell them to fuck off!” I thought for a moment and then continued, “and depending on how preposterous the thing they’re trying to meddle about is, I might be less polite…”

We talked some more, her pointing out that the meddlers in this instance are, well… my brain, so to consider where the intentions are coming from, and also (I don’t recall which of us pointed this out) that the meddling is coming from a place of trauma.

Oh, right, I think she asked me (I can’t remember if before she brought up this analogy, or during the analogy conversation) what my brain was trying to achieve by feeding me this paranoid notion that I’d told her about. I told her that sarcastic me would say “to fuck with me”, but rational me realises that it’s to protect me… which is a pain in the ass (the latter point), because, of course, there are so many better, more effective, and less, well, paranoid ways to protect me, that don’t cause me needless anxiety! So, sure, my brain has good intentions, but honestly, Brain, can you fuck off already sometimes?!

So, with the idea in mind that my neighbours upstairs (i.e. Brain) is coming from a place of trauma in my case, that would suggest that I ought to respond with some level of compassion (which also ties into our notions of self-care and being kind to ourselves).

Then she told me another story (a true one this time, not an analogy).2

When she was living in Sydney, there was a homeless man who would go around warning people that there was an alien invasion coming and that they needed to get out of Sydney, because that was going to be the centre of the alien invasion. People responded to him in all sorts of different ways (mocking him, ignoring him, but some also with kindness and compassion), and my therapist said that what struck her was that what he was doing was a very brave thing. Sure, it was paranoid and delusional, but (while yes, it’s possible that he was stuck there and couldn’t get out himself) considering that he seemed to genuinely believe that Sydney was a NOT SAFE place to be and that everyone should evacuate, the fact that he was staying there to warn people, despite the unkind responses he often got, was in a way brave (especially since it’s quite likely that he was coming from a place of trauma).

So, while she’s not saying that we should entertain paranoid delusions, responding to them (especially when they’re coming from a place of trauma) with kindness is the right thing to do. I don’t need to berate my upstairs neighbours and yell at them to fuck off. I can invite them in for a cup of tea (peppermint tea is very calming), tell them I understand their concerns (maybe write about them), and tell them what I’m going to do to keep all of us safe.

Sure, my upstairs neighbours are still going to keep coming back with more freakouts. That’s just part of the deal with PTSD.

At the end of the session, I told my therapist I’d have a think about this, maybe with the upstairs neighbours, and she joked that I can have a committee meeting. I asked her if she’d seen the movie Inside Out (I like it very much!) and she had and also likes it.

I guess to me, perhaps I can look at it as PTSD having moved in another “committee member” (I’m not sure what I’d call them… maybe just “trauma” would do), or alternatively we could say that PTSD really badly fucked over the committee members that were already there… and perhaps the upstairs neighbour that’s causing issues in this instance is Traumatised Fear. I guess both ways of looking at it work.

Either way, I need to be kind to my upstairs neighbours, and not be the dismissive bitch I find it so easy to be… it’s a work in progress.


1 And I feel ok saying that/reclaiming that slur, since it’s a slur used against mentally ill people, and I am mentally ill.

2 I have her permission to share both the analogy and this story.

Credit for the image (I haven’t read the article, this is just where I found the image).

Janet: A nonbinary autistic icon

CW: mentions of mansplaining, and descriptions of negative responses to coming out as nonbinary

Ok, I am going to start this post with a song I came across today on Spotify, but here is the Youtube version:

The Good Place Song: “Pobody’s Nerfect” by Whitney Avalon
The lyrics are here.1
The video shows Whitney Avalon (I assume) singing and dancing, dressed like the character Janet, from The Good Place (navy pencil skirt and vest, white blouse with light blue pattern and frill out the front over the vest). She’s white and has long, dark brown hair. At times there are three of her in a row.

This song is a tribute to the TV show The Good Place (which is great, I highly recommend it!), and in particular to the anthropomorphised informational assistant, Janet. As soon as I heard this song I fell in love with it (and I’ve gotta be honest, it wasn’t till I looked it up on youtube that I saw that the title/lyric actually says “pobody’s nerfect” and not “nobody’s perfect”!). So, that, plus some other recent developments, inspired me to write about Janet, The Good Place, and a few other things today.

So, to start with, one recurring thing in the TV show is that Janet often says that she’s “not a girl” (one of the other characters often refers to her as a/his girl). For the longest time I figured that this is just because she’s not human, and therefore doesn’t fit into human ideas of gender. Recently, I’ve come across a number of memes and FB posts about Janet being nonbinary, which make complete sense to me though! I mean, whether it’s because she’s not human or because, as whatever she is, she doesn’t identify as fitting into a binary gender (and she is very consistent about not being a girl, or a woman, even though that’s how she presents), I don’t think it really matters. Either way, she doesn’t fit into a binary gender identity, and if that’s not what nonbinary is, I don’t know what is!

Now, there’s also another thing that struck me about this song, and that’s the number of things I identified with on an autistic level… I know that Janet knows everything about everything, whereas us autistics tend to know everything about our autistic interests, rather than about everything, but I’m sure a lot of us (like me) have been called “walking dictionaries/encyclopaedias”, I’m sure a lot of us are good at and/or enjoy research… and even though there’s this persistent myth that we don’t have empathy, the truth, as we know, is that the vast majority of us have a LOT of empathy, often feeling too much even, so lines like “helping is my passion” and “I’m the Janet with a plan and it’s to save the human race” feel very autistically empathetic.

Also, I love the line “Yes, I’m always smiling but don’t get the wrong impression/I will ruin you while I maintain this facial expression”, because OMFG, how many of us have our facial expressions read wrong, have blank faces, etc…

My only mild quibble with claiming Janet as an autistic icon is that we’re often accused of being “robotic” already, and claiming someone who is something of an AI seems… unwise…? But then, I think the point, really, is that (well, she often says she’s “not a robot”, much like she’s also “not a girl”!) and the whole thing with people calling us robotic is that ridiculous “autistics don’t have empathy” myth, whereas here I’m wanting to claim someone who specifically does have empathy, and feels things, so I think that counters that…

So, all of this together brings me to something which I’m sure has come up before, but which I want to bring up again, in light of something which came up recently:

I recently started coming out to people around me/close to me as nonbinary. I’m still in the process of figuring this out, but this is something which feels very right to be. I’ve had quite a mixture of reactions, from overwhelmingly positive, to absolutely nothing, to being essentially told that it’s just a phase (and to that latter one – honestly, even if it is, and I’m not saying it’s not, because I do believe that gender is fluid, why the fuck does that matter, and why the fuck would that mean that anyone should treat me with any less respect and not use my correct pronouns for me?!). Speaking of pronouns, I am currently trying out they/them pronouns to see how that feels for me.

Now, I’ve known for quite a while that there’s a lot of overlap between the LGBTQIA+ community and the autistic community (in particular that there are a lot of queer and trans2 autistics), and as someone who’s identified as bi/queer for several years now I’ve been part of that overlap (in terms of sexual orientation) since I found out that I’m autistic last year (well, I was before that too, I guess, but I didn’t know, because I didn’t know that I’m autistic!). But now that I’m also figuring out the whole being nonbinary thing, I also fit into the trans side of that overlap.

And then I found this song, which feels like an anthem for nonbinary autistics, and made me realise that Janet is totally a nonbinary autistic icon, and it made my day.

That is all.3


1 Hi there, I’m Janet. Depending on what dimension you’re in, I may look slightly different from what you’re used to, but don’t let that distract you from this important message.

I’m not a human, I cannot feel pain
I don’t have a heart, but I love just the same
I’ve evolved far beyond what other Janets can do
So don’t fork with me or I will fork with you
I’m not a girl, also not a robot
Ninety-nine trillion degrees, so yeah I’m smokin’ hot
I can’t die, so remember who you’re talking to
If you murder me I will reboot and THEN I’ll fork with you

I contain all knowledge
But pobody’s nerfect
I’m a walkie talkie
But pobody’s nerfect
I create life out of nothing
But pobody’s nerfect
Pobody’s nerfect, nerfect, can’t you see
Nobody’s perfect, except probably me

According to the research I just did into 2,453,660 songs, this one’s so catchy you’ll never get it out of your head!

I keep secrets, helping is my passion
I rock all shades of 70s flight attendant fashion
Yes, I’m always smiling but don’t get the wrong impression
I will ruin you while I maintain this facial expression
In a fight I’ll kick demons ‘cross the room
I don’t sell violins, but I’ll orchestrate your doom
In the Good or the Bad or the Medium Place
I’m the Janet with a plan and it’s to save the human race

I’m high in potassium
But pobody’s nerfect
I’m an amazing jazz drummer
But pobody’s nerfect
I can explain the time knife
But pobody’s nerfect
Pobody’s nerfect, nerfect, but actually
Nobody’s perfect, except probably me

If they call me Helper Woman I don’t get mad
Busty Alexa? Still wrong, but not half bad
If they want me to appear, they can’t sobriquet it
My name is J-A-N-E-T and don’t you dare forget it

I always pop up in whatever direction they’re not looking – it’s fun!

My void is boundless
But pobody’s nerfect
I count as carry-on luggage
But pobody’s nerfect
Again, I can literally create life, and I use the passing of time as a lotion, like a god
But pobody’s nerfect
Pobody’s nerfect, nerfect, but seriously
Nobody’s perfect, except probably me

I could lie, but here’s something totally true
If you touch my friends then Schur as shirt I’ll forking fork with you

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPp-U4QonnM

2 I leaned recently that “trans” is an umbrella term which refers to anyone who isn’t cisgender (“cisgender” referring to people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). So nonbinary people also come under the trans umbrella.

Some people have tried to use “trans*” as an umbrella term, not realising/understanding that “trans” itself already is and umbrella term, or refusing to use/see/recognise it as such (“gender diverse” and “gender expansive” are also broader umbrella terms which I have seen used, though again, to me this discounts the existence of the umbrella term we already have). While I can, a little bit, see where that reluctance might come from – I find it hard to see myself as trans, since to me the word speaks of transition, and I don’t feel like I am transitioning in my gender – that isn’t what it actually means, and even if it were, language evolves, and that’s not how it’s come to be used.

Just like “bisexual” doesn’t mean “attracted to two genders only”, despite the prefix “bi” in the word – language evolves, and bisexual has generally come to mean “attraction to two or more/all genders”.

So, since I’m not sure what the correct term for transphobia but directed at nonbinary people (if there is one) is, I’m going to use transphobia to cover all of it…

3 Actually, almost all.

Last week while “debating” ethics (long story, but the scare quotes are appropriate – it felt a lot more like me being asked to mark first year philosophy essays again, in the guise of someone wanting to “pick my brain” and then proceeding to mainsplain the material to me…) someone asked me if I’d watched The Good Place, and told me that he thought I’d probably most identify with Chidi.

Chidi is one of the other main characters, who, before he died (this isn’t really a spoiler – the show is set in the afterlife) was an ethics professor.

Except… nope. Not at all. I mean, there’s one thing I identify with Chidi on a LOT, and that’s his indecisiveness! (ADHD brain ftw!) But other than that… he’s a black man (I’m a Pākehā nonbinary person) and yeah, he was an ethics professor… but he’s a Kantian!! And I am very emphatically NOT a Kantian!! I’m about as far from a Kantian as you can get! So no, I identify with Janet, much more!!

Also, if you didn’t already know, Janet is on twitter (yes, it’s a parody account, but it’s awesome), and you should totally follow her!

Let’s Talk About Sex! Part 2: A Defence of the Need for Explicit, Verbal Consent Negotiation; or A Rebuttal to The Rape Apologist

CW: rape, sexual violence, rape apology, ableism (especially dismissing autistic women)

So, earlier today I got an email asking me if I wanted to present at this year’s Work in Progress (WiP) Day at the Philosophy Department. I replied, thanking the person for thinking of me and explaining that I had, in fact, quit my PhD in April this year, so there wasn’t any progress to present.

That got me thinking, though. It got me thinking a few things. It got me thinking back to last year’s WiP Day (where I presented what I posted recently as the Let’s Talk About Sex Part 1 post and won two audience-voted awards)… it also got me thinking of the discussion that resulted from that presentation, both there and then during the Q&A, and what continued afterwards via email with a Person who had asked a Question and then with my supervisors, which did in fact result in significant progress.1

You see, one of the questions that was asked in response to my talk (in response, in particular, to my insistence on the need for explicit verbally negotiated consent) was about what if men could learn to read body language – would that change things.

This prompted some discussion, particularly afterwards, and led to me writing quite a bit more. But the question that was asked, and what the man who posed in wrote in response to me answering him… scared me. I see it as nothing short of rape apology.

So, I’d like to share another part of what I wrote for my thesis, which came out of the discussions from last year’s WiP Day.

A Defence of the Need for Explicit, Verbal2 Consent Negotiation

A frequent objection to this suggestion that we need to explicitly, verbally negotiate our sexual encounters is that it’s not sexy. Apparently, it takes away the natural give and take of reading and responding to body language and the sexiness and sensuality of flirtation and replaces it with a clunky script. This objection (often made by men), sometimes stutters briefly at least to a halt when they hear about the numerous studies which show that men consistently misinterpret women’s nonverbal behaviour.3

However, the question has come up as to what might happen if men could learn to read body language and whether that might change things with regards to this need for explicit verbal negotiation. Some people, the argument goes, are much better at “lying” with their words than with their body language so if someone is saying “yes” with their words but “no” with their body language, then one would want to take the body language into account.4

The simple answer to this is that this isn’t a possibility I can seriously consider because this isn’t a thing that is possible. Even if I were to grant that whatever we’d like to call “typical” nonverbal behaviour could be learned (and I have no idea if it can be or not because it’s not really relevant – bear with me here!) there is far too much diversity. And even if we were to grant that the vast differences in cultural expressions of body language and facial expressions and other kinds of nonverbal behaviour (across all the different cultures in the world) could be learned (by any one individual man), which would be a mean feat, and seems highly unlikely, this is still not possible. Because all of this doesn’t account for neurodiversities that impact these non-verbal forms of communication, and for social awkwardness that might lead to atypical (or a lack of) non-verbal communication.

Story time: I’m autistic, but I didn’t know that and wasn’t “diagnosed”6 until earlier this year, when I was 30. So, I have spent almost my whole life so far not knowing that I’m autistic. Part of being autistic for me means that my body language, and in particular my facial expression is definitely not “typical” (and in fact often blank), as has been confirmed for me by many friends and others close to me. If someone were to base their interactions with me more on their interpretation of my body language and facial expressions than on my verbal communication that would be a surefire recipe for disaster. Fortunately, now, I am able to communicate (verbally) to those around me that I am autistic and explain the situation about the non-verbal communication. For most of my life I haven’t been able to do so.

Why is this story relevant? There is a huge number of undiagnosed autistic people, researchers estimating around half of autisitcs don’t know they’re autistic, and the thing is, the vast majority of these undiagnosed autistics are women. The fact that the majority of autistic women go undiagnosed, are diagnosed late, or get misdiagnosed has a number of reasons. In part it’s due to misinformation in the medical field. There are countless stories of women who have had to fight to get diagnosed after having first been told that autism is something that only affects boys and men, so they can’t be autistic, or some variation of that. Part of the problem is also in the original diagnostic criteria (both for autism and for Asperger’s, the latter of which is now no longer considered a separate diagnosis7) having been based on studies which involved a lot more boys than girls. Another very major issue is that things which are pathologised in boys (being quiet, preferring to play by oneself, having intense obsessions) are often seen as quite normal and expected in girls, especially since quite often these intense obsessions are often related to things girls are typically “supposed to” take an interest in (such as fashion, horses, celebrities, or in my case fantasy books and religion when I was younger), rather than often with boys the stereotypical things like trains. Girls go undiagnosed because our autism is seen as another expression of typical femininity, but when everything is too much, and we get overloaded and we meltdown we are “difficult” children. Lastly, autistic women tend to be much better at masking/camouflaging our autism, which is essentially a survival mechanism for fitting into allistic society by pretending to be allistc ourselves since we’ve spent our lives learning the “right” mannerisms, social cues, scripts, etc. However, masking is extremely exhausting and is very detrimental to our well-being and especially our mental health and for a lot of autistics it can lead to autistic burnout. Masking is only very recently starting to be researched and discussed by the medical community, yet it is clearly another big reason why so many of us get so far through life without a diagnosis.

It is worth highlighting also, that on top of all of these reasons for women being un-/mis-/late/under-diagnosed, this is also an intersectional issue (at least in some parts of the world, I can’t speak to all parts of the world). Here in Aotearoa, for example, adults can’t be diagnosed through the public health system8 so in order to receive a formal diagnosis, adults need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist privately which can be very expensive (hundreds, if not thousands of dollars). For people living in poverty this is prohibitively expensive, and since we know that statistically poverty affects certain population groups more, groups who are already more marginalised (in Aotearoa these are, for example, Māori, Pasifika people, single parents – single mothers especially, and disabled people). When women belonging to one or more of these groups (or even just women living in poverty, since living in poverty is itself another form of oppression) are unable to seek a formal diagnosis, this becomes an intersectional issue (it’s always been a feminist issue). It is also one of the reasons why self-diagnosis is rather common in the autistic community and is fairly commonly accepted.9

The upshot is that it is a bad idea for anyone to make assumptions based on someone’s body language or facial expression! While Leo Kanner, who first published on autism in the 1940s may have thought that the prevalence was merely four in 10,000 people10, researchers now estimate that one in 40 people is autistic11 (and this number has increased from just four years ago when researchers were estimating the prevalence to be one in 5912). And considering that that number comes from a paper on autistic children, I can’t imagine it takes into account the numbers of us who go undiagnosed or who aren’t diagnosed until much later in life.

I have had people assume that I’m bored when I haven’t been bored at all, I’ve had people ask me why I’m so upset or sad, when I’ve felt absolutely fine and not at all upset or sad, I’ve been told I look like a scared squirrel when interacting with customer service people when I’ve felt quite confident (just a little dreamy, perhaps).13 And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked “what’s that look on your face?” and wanted to respond with a snarky “I don’t know, I don’t have mirror in front of me!” If someone were to make assumptions about me, or about any other autistic person, based on our nonverbal behaviour, that wouldn’t get them very far. If someone seemed to be making those kinds of assumptions now, I might be able to pick up on that and tell them not to do that (though I’m not good at picking up on the nonverbal behaviour of others, which is also part of being autistic). Before I knew about all this, I would have been just as clueless and may have been trying to ignorantly guess my way through someone else’s nonverbal behaviour as much as they tried to make sense of my nonsensical face! The moral of this story is: no one bothered to tell me that my face was blank, and I didn’t know I was autistic until I was 30. You don’t know who you might be interacting with, nor how good at masking they might be. Expressing yourself clearly, explicitly, and verbally is the only way to go.

In an interesting, and somewhat related aside, Bessel van der Kolk writes about his work as a psychiatrist working with patients who have suffered trauma that a “characteristic they shared was that even their most relaxed conversations seemed stilted, lacking the natural flow of gestures and facial expressions that are typical among friends.”14 It would appear from this that atypical facial expressions and gestures (so, nonverbal behaviour) is not just something common to autistic people, but perhaps also to those with PTSD, or other survivors of trauma. In fact, it is well known in the medical community that in women, at least, autism presents quite similarly to PTSD, so that often a differential diagnosis needs to be made (though that is not to say that we cannot both be autistic and suffer trauma; in fact, being autistic makes us more susceptible to trauma since we are more easily taken advantage of, as the research also shows15).

This point here, regarding trauma, is actually very important. One might be inclined to dismiss all of the talk about autism and think that well, if it did turn out to be possible to learn the nonverbal behaviour of NT people, then that would cover the great majority of people at least (one in 40 is only 2.5% of the population, after all), so we’d be pretty safe grounding our assumptions on that… Except firstly, that’s a very dismissive and callous attitude to take. Secondly, look again at the note about survivors of trauma. A lot of people might associate PTSD with war veterans. But the great majority of people with PTSD are people (particularly women) who have survived rape and sexual assault. And the statistics on sexual violence are awful, even here in Aotearoa. One in three girls is sexually abused before she turns 16, one in seven boys before he reaches adulthood. One in five women experiences a serious sexual assault at least once during her lifetime.16 If there’s a chance that the effects of trauma can change the way our nonverbal body language presents (and I’m sure this will be different for each individual survivor of trauma) then considering how widespread such trauma is, we cannot assume for any given woman (or any given person, since men who are survivors of sexual violence report even less often than women do) that their nonverbal body language will be “typical”.

Taking all of this back to the negotiation of a sexual encounter… if someone, let’s say a man (who was unfortunately unable to learn the nonverbal behaviour of ALL people) gets the impression that their partner is saying “no” with their body-language/facial expression, then by all means, they should exit the sexual encounter, however (and this is very important) not because they think the other person doesn’t want to continue with the encounter. They should put a stop to the encounter because they themselves do not feel comfortable with it, and if they feel they are getting mixed signals they shouldn’t feel comfortable with it. This distinction matters, because if they were to stop the sexual encounter because they think the other person doesn’t want to continue with the encounter and actually said so to their partner then that would be telling their partner that they (the male partner) believe that their ability to interpret their (the female partner’s) non-verbal communication/body-language/facial expression is better or superior to the woman’s ability to communicate what she actually wants and how she is feeling. They would essentially be mansplaining her own feelings to her (saying “I can tell what your body is saying better than you can… or you are lying to me”). If, on the other hand they put a stop to the sexual encounter because they themselves do not feel comfortable with it, then they are taking responsibility for their own feelings and for their own confusion, which is a very mature thing to do. It is respectful of their partner to take them at their word and it is responsible and caring to themselves to take a step back and ensure that they are in a situation they are completely comfortable with themselves. The other option they have, of course, is to openly talk through their discomfort, if they feel they have the sensitivity to do so.

Before we continue, think back for a moment to the example of Sam and Alex from the previous post on sex, negotiating their sexual encounter within their established long-term relationship. It may seem odd that a couple who are in an established long-term relationship would communicate so explicitly about sex with each other. One might think they, at least, would already be able to “read” each other, that surely an argument could be made that even if men can’t learn to read non-verbal communication generally, surely we can say that we can get rid of this need for explicit verbal communication in long-term relationships because couples can learn to read each other, given some time!

I want to say yes, I really, really do. And yet, I remain cautious.

On the one hand, we might say that so long as general boundaries are negotiated to begin with and a safeword is always in place and an openness to renegotiation is always there, what’s the harm in saying go ahead and fall back on safewords if need be…? My caution lies in the fact that the majority of rape occurs between “intimate partners” (with most of the rest between “acquaintances” – stranger danger is really rather a myth).17 And this isn’t something that occurs only rarely to someone you might read about in the news. You can be almost certain that you know someone yourself who has experienced this in their own life. Statistics from the US tell us that “[n]early 1 out of 10 women in the United States (9.4% or approximately 11.1 million) has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime” and in addition to that, “[a]pproximately 1 in 6 women (16.9% or nearly 19 million) has experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner in her lifetime; this includes sexual coercion (9.8%), unwanted sexual contact (6.4%) and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences (7.8%).”18 Given Aotearoa’s notoriety for domestic violence, I’d wager the statistics here are no better.

Now take these statistics and consider whether we want to say, across the board that it’s fine to assume that we can read our partners well enough to do away with explicitly negotiating consent. Clearly, far too many people can’t and don’t. Given that, I would suggest that continuing a certain level of explicit consent negotiation even in long-term relationships displays trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, and of course honesty. While the ideal might be for us to be worthy of our partner’s trust, to be respectful of our partner, to be responsible, caring, and honest, the minimum requirement, even in a long-term relationship should be that we act in ways which are trustworthy, that we treat our partners with respect, that we behave responsibly and with care and that we act honestly. The minimum standard is continence, though as we continue to practice these actions we will continue to build up our character traits and work our way towards virtue. The other reason to continue to clearly and explicitly negotiate and communicate in long-term relationships is that people don’t read minds and continuing to negotiate throughout a sexual encounter what feels good and what doesn’t is not only best practice ethically, but since it’s a way of giving feedback it can make for better sex, and positive feedback would surely be nice to hear.

In another twist on all of this, a response I have come across to all of this (or specifically to the insistence that yes, we really, really need to have explicit verbal consent negotiations) is the claim that goes, more or less “but wait, I’ve never done the explicit verbal thing in all of my sexual encounters thus far and I’ve never raped anyone!” This style of response was clearly framed by Matteo Ravasio when he said:

I am quite sure that all of my first-time encounters with a woman have been of this sort: whether it was initiated by her or by me, there was no linguistic agreement that we were going to have sex.

I think that insistence that this sort of explicit verbal consent is a necessary condition for a consensual encounter would result in a view that considers the vast majority of intercourse as cases of sexual abuse.19 [Emphasis in original]

I have two responses to this. The first is rather a blunt question: how can you be sure? If you didn’t explicitly negotiate consent, how can you know for sure what the other person(s) involved wanted and felt? Unless they told you, you can’t. Pointing back to the previous post, men are notoriously bad at reading women’s nonverbal behaviour and communication and if that’s all you have to go on… I’m frankly amazed at how anyone could be so certain. You might also want to consider the fact that a lot of survivors of rape and sexual assault wouldn’t confront their rapists with the fact of what they did afterwards. (I know I didn’t!!)

My second response is on something of a lighter note. We need to stop looking at sex as a dichotomy of good sex and rape. I mentioned the statistics earlier and yes, they are awful, and things desperately need to change. However, if you look at this within the virtue ethics framework then we can say that you may have been terribly irresponsible in not practicing explicit verbal negotiation of consent, you may have lacked respect and care for your partner(s), you may have been callous and insensitive to their needs (perhaps also to your own), you may have not communicated honestly about your own needs and desires. You may not have been generous with your time, perhaps your sexual expertise, your vulnerability and openness towards your partner(s). Maybe you lacked the courage to open up and speak openly and vulnerably about your desires and needs and fantasies with your partner(s). We can consider all of these things and say that the sex someone has is ethically problematic in one, a few, many, or all of these ways, and still not call it rape or sexual assault. But on our current vocabulary about sex, as soon as we identify sex as bad (in an ethical sense) it must be rape. This was the problem with the Aziz Ansari case;20 so many commentators read the story, couldn’t find rape and concluded there was nothing ethically wrong, so it must just be a case of “bad sex” (i.e. a lousy/unpleasant sexual encounter). Somehow so many people failed to notice the attempted rape, the manipulation, the callousness, the lack of respect, the lack of care about his date’s needs and desires.

1It also got me thinking about how I had to quit my PhD largely because I wasn’t coping because of my PTSD (which I have because the bad ex raped me) and the content of my thesis being very much to do with sexual consent (and therefore non-consent), so I wasn’t very well equipped to deal with things like the rape apologist whose question during the Q&A sparked the further progress which I’m sharing here… also, the University’s disability support (I found out in my last year before I quit that I’m autistic and ADHD, though the ADHD wasn’t formally diagnosed until after I quit, I think…) was absolutely useless!!

I know that my research is important and valuable, but because of the lack of support I’m never going to complete the thesis I wanted to/set out to. I also know that I’m not the only survivor of rape/sexual violence who has had to give up graduate study at least in part as a result of that.

2I had made the point elsewhere in what I’d written (in what was meant to be a chapter) that for people who are non-verbal other methods of communication, such as written, electronic text-based, or sign language communication would also fit the bill. For the sake of brevity, I am subsuming those into the “explicit and verbal” label, even though those forms of communication are not, of course, verbal.

3 Michelle J. Anderson, “Negotiating Sex,” Southern California Law Review 78, no. 6 (2005), 1406.

4 Thank you to Matteo Ravasio for this “interesting” question – I am sceptical of how actually interesting it is, of course, especially considering all of his follow-up comments, which as mentioned above, I see as nothing short of rape apology.

6 I now, of course, find the medicalisation of the idea of “diagnosing” us… distasteful, to put it mildly. Unfortunately a “diagnosis” is still necessary in order to access a lot of accommodations/supports (such as in education/employment), but this is a topic for another post.

7 In the DSM-V; in the ICD-X it still is, and the ICD-XI, in which it won’t be, hasn’t been released yet.

8 I have been told that it may be possible if someone is admitted for inpatient mental health care, possibly even only if that is involuntary, so under the Mental Health Act, but I don’t know how accurate that is. I do know that generally speaking it’s simply not funded through public health except for children.

9 Of course, as in any community, there is disagreement. Some hold firmly to the view that formal diagnosis is the only form that “counts”, however I have found these to be outliers, and often to be found in people who also hold very racist and misogynist views.

10 Simon Baron-Cohen, “Book: Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and the discovery of autism,” The Lancet 386, no. 10001 (2015), 1330.

11 Kogan et al., “The Prevalence of Parent-Reported Autism Spectrum Disorder Among US Children,” 1.

12 Baio et al., “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years – Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2014,” 2.

13 Most recently, I’ve had my older sister show me a photo of one of her cats who is terrified of her new puppy (and clearly looks very scared) and tell me that the expression on her cat’s face looks just like an expression that is often on my face. I do not see the resemblance. I don’t think I look like a cat (but apparently that’s not the point).

14 van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 26.

15 https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/girls-autism-high-risk-sexual-abuse-large-study-says/

16 HELP Auckland, “Sexual Abuse Statistics,” https://www.helpauckland.org.nz/sexual-abuse-statistics.html

17 Black et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report, 1. It says, “[m]ore than half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance”. These are US statistics.

None of this is to say that rape and sexual assault by stranger doesn’t happen at all, simply that it is incredibly rare and that women are much more likely to be subjected to violence by a current or former partner or an acquaintance.

18 Ibid., 42.

19 Matteo Ravasio, email message to author, November 1, 2018.

20 Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355

On Being Judgemental

CW: mentions of slavery, racism, rape, homophobia, mass murder (i.e. war), Nazis

Once upon a time, many years ago (after I emerged from my childhood indoctrination into fundamentalist Christianity), I believed for quite a while that one of the world’s greatest evils (besides hypocrisy, and a few other things) was being judgemental.

It turns out, that I was wrong. The evil I had such great distaste for, and which I think really ought to be the target of all the hatred that “being judgemental” gets… is bigotry. And that’s a very different thing altogether!

See, when I was freshly emerged from under the rock of fundamentalist Christianity, the kind of judgementalism I hated was… people judging me for (eventually) coming out as queer… for not being Christian… people judging other people… for things they couldn’t do anything about (say, the colour of their skin, or whatever)… in other words, it wasn’t them “judging” anyone that I actually took issue with, it was what they were being judged for!

See, as it turns out, I don’t think being judgemental is a problem at all, much less one of the world’s greatest evils. In fact, I think it’s human nature. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked (something along the lines of) “who gives you the right to judge x like that?!” or told some variation of “you’re very judgemental!” … and I am! Because I’m human. This is what we do.

There are a few different things to address here. Firstly, part of being human involves putting things into categories. Some of us do this more than others (us autistics seem to love to do this a LOT), but we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. Look at the supermarket. Things aren’t just put everywhere willy nilly. They’re organised in some way. By some kind of category system. You have frozen foods together, fresh fruits and vegetables together, dead animals together (yes, you can tell I’m vegetarian!), breakfast cereal… we’re human, we categorise things!

Look at libraries: more categories! And library catalogues, to further organise the categories! And universities: faculties, departments, schools – lots of categories!

And countries have censuses and Ministries/Departments of Statistics to gather information about people because yes, we also put people into categories, be it by sexual orientation (at least they should – I’m pretty sure that our census in Aotearoa has not been collecting this information, but yes, we need them to!), ethnicity, country of origin, age, being disabled/abled, health needs, education, gender, and I don’t even remember what else. Welcome to identity politics! We categorise people (including, perhaps especially ourselves!). In many ways, when we categorise anything, or anyone, we are making a linguistic judgement.

What I’m saying is this: we are people, this is what we do. I am (for now) not saying that this is a good or a bad thing. I am saying that this is a thing!

Then, of course, in addition to linguistic judgements (categorising things, and people), we make ethical judgments. And this is where people get very, very iffy. This is what people do not like. This is where people get all don’t be so judgemental!

The thing is… we are human, this is what we do.

When we say that slavery is wrong, that is an ethical judgement. When we say that racism is bad, that is an ethical judgment. When we say that rape is wrong, that is an ethical judgement. When we say that we ought to be kind, that is an ethical judgement. If you have ever said any of these things, or something similar, you have been judgemental! Suck it the fuck up!

Now, let me put a few other possible judgements out there:

  • Mass murder is wrong.
  • People who engage in mass murder, develop/promote government policies that result in mass murder, blatantly lie in order to trump up a reason to go to war unnecessarily, resulting in massive military and civilian deaths (and injuries), over far too many years, never utter a word of regret or apology about it, or try to fix the mess they made, are bad people.
  • Bad people might be capable of being good at boardgames, fun D&D players, tell good jokes, or have any number of other good qualities, however, they are still bad people.
  • Being friends with bad people is wrong.
  • Being a public figure puts someone in a position of added responsibility and scrutiny (by virtue of one’s actions being, y’know, public)!
  • A supposedly progressive public figure being friends with a mass murderer is WRONG.

And you know what gives me the right to make any/all of those ethical judgements? The fact that I am a human being, and this is what we do. You know what else? You (by virtue of you reading this) are also a human being and are also capable of making ethical judgements! You are capable of disagreeing with me and making different ones. That’s pretty much how this works!

Sure, if you disagree, I will believe that I’m right and that you’re wrong, but you know what? Make a good argument for your case, and I’ll consider it! (Fair warning: I was an academic philosopher for quite a number of years, specifically an ethicist. I know my way around an argument. Also, I can totally choose not to engage if I’m not in the mood/don’t have the energy/for no reason at all.)

TL;DR: Being judgemental is what we, as humans do. Being bigoted, on the other hand, is not. So, go ahead, be human, make judgements. Also, don’t be friends with mass murderers (or Nazis, for that matter)! (That’s how making a judgement works!)

“Autism-dar”, “Autiedar”, or why I talk to people about being autistic…

CW: homophobia, biphobia, ableism, suicide, eating disorders,

Right now, I think I want to talk about the idea of “autism acceptance”. I know, I know, it’s not April (thank fuck!!), but I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, especially in the context of why I talk to people about me thinking that I think they might be autistic (the idea of “autism-dar” or “autiedar” gets talked about in the #ActuallyAutistic community).

I think there are a few important things to think about here, and I think bullet points might be easiest for me, right now:

  • According to something I read recently, researchers estimate that roughly 50% of autistics don’t know that they’re autistic.
  • Being autistic (and neurodivergence in general) is genetic. We know this; this is not news. So, if one family member is autistic, or otherwise neurodivergent, the likelihood is high that other family members are too.
  • When I was first coming out as bi, Robbie, the jerk (or one of them) from my theatre studies class, tried to tell me that I couldn’t call myself bisexual because I’d never (I can’t remember if he said “kissed”/”had sex with”/”been in a relationship with” but whatever it was, I didn’t have the relevant experience – in his eyes) with a woman, and I should therefore call myself “bicurious” until I did.
    • That’s obviously a whole lot of homophobia and biphobia wrapped up together right there, but it’s useful in illustrating an interesting point, I think: in our (heteronormative) society, kids are raised to assume that they’re straight (and sure, that might be changing slightly, but certainly not fast enough. So, when someone comes out as some version of queer, there’s always been a lot of thought and soul-searching that’s gone into that!
    • On the other hand… people don’t tend to “come out” as straight. Because people are already assumed to be straight. They don’t feel the need to come out. So, no one ever goes around asking “so, when did you know that you liked [insert “opposite” gender here – which, of course, buys into the ridiculous notion that gender is a binary!]?” like queer folk are (still!) asked sometimes…
    • But really, why is that? I’m not saying that random strangers should go prying into the sexual orientations of random straight people, rather I’m saying that straight people should, as a matter of course, be expected to give a whole lot more thought to their own sexual orientations!! We, as a society, should not raise our children to be straight, we should get rid of the assumption that everyone is straight (and cis, of course, but let’s have one conversation at a time)! It should be a given expectation that everyone considers (and not just as a fleeting thought, that’s dismissed with defensiveness, disgust, and outright horror!!) who and what they’re attracted to, in terms of gender, gender expression, genitals, personality, music tastes, kinks, and anything else you can think of!
  • But, sure, this was meant to be about neurodivergence, not about sexual orientation, right?
  • And yet, I keep drawing this parallel between the two, because I think in so many ways they have so, so much in common!! They’re both genetic, they’re both a core part of a person’s identity… oh, and up until the early 2000s (as I recently learned!), sexual orientation was still classified as a mental disorder in the US (and so likely also elsewhere) … And, of course, “autism spectrum disorder” and “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (as two examples), still are! Really, really gross!
  • I’ve been thinking for quite a while about what my vision of a future for neurodiversity is, and I think that’ll be an ongoing thought project… but I think that part of it will certainly be this:
    • That like what I described above about expecting everyone to think about who/what they’re attracted to, I think everyone should be educated about neurodiversity, and I think everyone should be expected to think about how they identify (again, not just as a fleeting thought, that’s dismissed with defensiveness, disgust, and outright horror!!)
    • I think making sure that before doing so, each person actually understands what neurodivergence is and what the different forms are is really, really important (so that people aren’t thinking about this based on their ideas of stereotypes).
    • I also think that this would need to include an understanding of masking (at least to begin with, but I also hope for a day when we no longer have to mask – none of us!)
  • I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while in the context of why it’s so important for me to talk to people about being autistic, and about the concept of “autism-dar” or “autiedar” as I’ve also seen it called; it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the autistic version of gaydar.
    • Like I said above, roughly 50% of autistics don’t know they’re autistic.
    • Add to that, though, the huge lack of understanding of what it means to be autistic, especially as a woman, and far fewer women than men know that we’re autistic (a lot of us are figuring it out later in life).
      • If we know who we are, if we know that we are autistic, then we are able to access the support we are eligible for (provided we have a formal diagnosis – that’s a whole other hurdle, of course, but at least then it’s possible to try to get a formal diagnosis, which we couldn’t if we didn’t know that we’re autistic in the first place!), we can support each other (peer support is so, so important – whether it’s in person or online – online communities are really, really validating and supportive!), and perhaps most important of all: we can stop trying to be someone we aren’t! Once we know that we are autistic, we can finally stop trying harder to be allistic and always being disappointed when it’s not working… because it’s never going to work, because we’re not allistic!
      • We can allow ourselves to be who we are! We can stim freely, we can engage in eye contact, or not, as we are comfortable with, we can opt out of small talk (and allistic social dances generally), we can people as much or as little as we are comfortable with…

So, if someone who’s autistic tells you that they think you might be autistic and you get all defensive about it and tell them you don’t want to hear it, all I’m seeing is the equivalent of you saying to a gay person “eeew yuck, gay sex is gross!!! I don’t want my penis anywhere near another man’s penis!! Anal sex is soooooo gaaaaaaaaaaaay!!!” … and honestly, I don’t have the time for either that kind of homophobia or that kind of ableist bullshit in my life!

It’d just be a good idea to remember that if you have autistic family members (or, it turns out, if you are, or have been in a relationship with someone who’s autistic) the chances that you might be too, aren’t small.

And hiding from who we are never did any of us any good.

Humour: So which part exactly is funny? Or, the butt of family jokes.

Once upon a time, when my older sister was in high school, a friend or classmate of hers had an exchange student staying with them, from Germany. Somehow this story always seemed funnier, because they had a very stereotypically German name, but I’ll leave his name out of it. It’s important to note, though, for anyone who isn’t aware, that us Germans (and like the rest of my immediate family, I was born in Germany – we moved to Aotearoa New Zealand when I was six years old) are notorious for not having a sense of humour! It’s a German stereotype.

So, one day, my sister, her friend/classmate, this exchange student, and I don’t know who else, were hanging out, and someone tells a joke. I’ll do my best to replicate it here (though since it relies in part on imitating accents, there’s only so much I can do in writing…):

A German vessel out at sea receives a distress signal from another ship and the distress call on the radio equipment comes to them: “we’re sinking, we’re sinking!!”

The German sailor responds to the distress signal, rather calmly, “Yes… vot are you sinking about…?” [You’re just going to have to imagine the very much exaggerated German accent here that my older sister would always put on whenever she retold this joke.]

Everyone else burst out laughing… except for the German exchange student… he seemed confused and said, “I don’t get it. Zat’s not funny.” [Again, you’re going to have to imagine the exaggerated German accent here.]

And of course, his response, him not getting it, made the original joke even funnier for everyone else.

And years later in the retelling, I got it, I saw how this was the case (and laughed along with everyone else in all the right places). And there was still so much about all of this that I didn’t get.

But for years now, either “Zat’s not funny” or “I don’t get it. Zat’s not funny.” has been an in joke in my family. It’s been a jab at our German-ness (or lack thereof?), a tool for teasing (good natured, apparently, though I’ll have more on that below).

The thing about the humour in all of this (and in a lot of the humour-related interactions in my family) is that they very often have taken the form of:

Sibling says X (or recounts/plays X from some form of media). Other family members laugh/obviously appreciate the humour in X. Charlotte does not appreciate the humour in X, and in fact is either confused by X, or points out the way(s) in which X is offensive/hurtful, etc. One or more family members chime in with a refrain of “Oh, I don’t get it. Zat’s not funny.” very pointedly at Charlotte.

Over the years, this has turned into a very clear case of “Charlotte is too German for this/our/any humour”, because when humour comes up, for the most part… I don’t “get it” (or, rather, I get, on an intellectual level, why people find it funny, but I don’t find it funny, and a lot of the time I even find it upsetting or offensive) and no, that is not funny.

But the thing is… it’s not a German thing, at all. I was six and a half years old when we moved here. My older sister was 11 and a half. My younger sister was nearly two years old. We all still have our German citizenship (because, for the most part, without jumping through lots of hoops, Germany doesn’t allow dual citizenship, and we’ve had permanent residency here in Aotearoa for about 25 years now). My dad’s been here just as long as we have, though he got his citizenship a few years after we moved. We feel “Kiwi” to very varying degrees and have very differing feelings about our Germanness as part of our identities, etc. My point is, I’m no more or less German than the other members of my family. This humour thing has nothing to do with me being German.

What is different is that I’m autistic. (And while the question of whether or not I’m the only autistic member of my family is something there is some disagreement about – and also not particularly relevant since different autistics do humour differently from each other, masking works differently for different autistics, and so on…) NT/allistic humour is largely absurd to me (and not in a good way, in the sense of absurdist humour, which is a genre in itself, but in the sense of it makes no fucking sense and is… not funny, and often offensive and upsetting/hurtful)!

And yes, there are stereotypes of autistics not having a sense of humour. Bullshit. We have fucking fantastic humour. The thing is, autistics practically have our own language and culture in a lot of ways, and for most of our lives we’ve been forced to try to adapt to NT/allistic language/culture (which is exhausting as fuck and we’re often not very good at it!), but NTs/allistics hardly ever make any effort to learn/get to know our language/culture! Yeah, a lot of it involves taking things very literally. And very often there is a self-awareness around that, and a lot of humour that grows around the taking of things literally! People so often say I have no sense of humour, but once they get to know me and get to know my sense of humour, they find I’m actually really funny (I honestly find myself fucking hilarious!! I seriously make myself laugh a LOT!), and a lot of my humour is based around playfully taking things literally. Like when people use the saying “watch your step” I know (intellectually, and from experience) that that means for me to pay attention to/be aware of where I’m going – but I will playfully/humorously, literally watch my step! I will keep looking at my feet, at where I am placing my feet/my steps, even though I know that this is an exaggerated literal interpretation of the instruction. When someone tells me to “hold on”, I know that means that they need a little bit of time and they’re asking me to be patient. I will still ask them what they want me to hold on to. This is me being subtly funny, I am very deliberately playing with the stereotype that autistics take everything literally (while also at the same time doing just that – because fuck, I can’t help myself in having an awareness of the literal meanings of words, and so I may as well have fun with them while I’m at it!), and I’m also subtly drawing attention to the fact that so many of our idioms and sayings make no sense whatsoever, and that amuses me endlessly!! (Someone recently told me they’d have a litter of kittens about something. I was pissed off and exhausted as fuck. But I did point out that they already have cats/kittens… I might as well try to get/give a smile wherever I can… and sayings like that are silly!)

But this is just one example of one of the many kinds of humour that I like to use, and I’m just one of countless autistics.

As for the joke at the start, with the German vessel at sea… yeah, I think that jokes which mock people’s accents are just straight up problematic. Regardless whose accent you’re mocking. It normalises and makes it ok to mock the way someone talks. And yeah, in this instance (at least in our family’s retelling of it, certainly not, by the sounds of it, in the original telling, with the German exchange student as an important player in the audience) it’s self-deprecating humour, or could be, if any of us (my sisters and I) had a German accent… we don’t. (I’ve never heard my dad tell the joke… I’ve gotta say, I can’t really imagine it in his accent!)

And as for the addendum to the joke, which has become our family’s in-joke… honestly, I’m ashamed I ever took part in this in-joke. My sister’s group of friends told a joke, mocking the way that this exchange students and others like him talk, and afterwards he says that he doesn’t understand why others are finding him having just been mocked this way funny. For fuck’s sake, I know they were teenagers in high school, and “kids are cruel” and all that… but I think this guy had an awful lot more awareness than any of us ever gave him credit for. I think he knew exactly the point the joke was trying to make. Just like I’ve known all along the point the joke was trying to make. But I wasn’t the butt of that very first joke, whereas he was. And he stood up for himself and just said, pretty much, “wtf people, why are you laughing at the way you think I talk?! Why the fuck do you think you are so fucking funny?!”

And yeah, German exchange student guy, I agree! They weren’t funny. They were cruel. They were mocking you then, and your words have been used for decades now (with the mocking accent intact) to continue that mockery.

It needs to stop.

But more than that, allistics/NTs need to learn to make space for, welcome, embrace, and make efforts to understand autistics, including autistic language/culture, so that we are not always the ones having to adapt to your language/culture norms. We do more than enough of that every day. And I’m not saying at all that the German exchange student was autistic. I didn’t know him, I have no idea. Of course, just like autistics are mocked for having no sense of humour, which is bullshit, the German stereotype of having no sense of humour is also bullshit. I’m sure German norms for humour are simply different to those of other cultures (though I’m very disconnected from German pop culture!).